Notebook, 1993-

Return to - Notes for a Perspective on Art Education

Perspective - Art Education in the Twentieth Century: A History of Ideas - Schooling in Colonial America - The Invention of Common School Art - The Stream of Romantic Idealism in Art Education - 1890 to the First World War/Social Darwinism and the Quest for Beauty - Between the Wars/The Expressionist and Reconstructionist Streams in Art Education - Art Education from World War II to the Present

Notes from: Efland, Arthur. "Art Education in the Twentieth Century: A History of Ideas." In Framing the Past: Essays on Art Education,eds. Soucy, Donald, and Mary Ann Stankiewicz, Reston, Virginia: National Art Education Association, 1990.

Art Education in the Twentieth
Century: A History of Ideas

Social Darwinism and the Quest for Beauty

Throughout the nineteenth century a changing industrial order was indirectly responsible for a host of new institutions for the teaching of art. These institutions were then shaped and reshaped as new social wants were recognized. By the turn of the century demands for social reform were heard throughout the land. The populist movement emerged in rural America, while in the industrial cities labor strife broke out as the first trade unions came into being. Women were demanding voting rights. Settlement houses came into being to help immigrants adapt to their new country. The factors that gave impetus to the efforts to reform society also worked to change the character and mission of the schools. Change also occurred in the schools as new theories about child development and learning found its way into teaching. Long regarded as an art, teaching itself began to change as a result of science. [Cremin [1964] and Callahan [1962] served as my major secondary sources in this chapter. My discussion of science was guided primarily by Cremin's fourth chapter and my discussions of Parker and Dewey, by his fifth chapter. My understanding of Parker's contributions to at education were also influenced by Korzenik [1984, 1985]]

In this chapter we will deal with the ways in which science influenced education at the start of the twentieth century. We will examine the rise of psychology as a science and its applications in child study, in intelligence testing, and in studies of child art. Social Darwinism, which arose in the nineteenth century, became the rational warrant for the social efficiency movement at the dawn of this century. The demand for efficiency raised basic philosophical questions about the practical utility of all subjects in the curriculum, including the arts.

Another form of scientific influence was Dewey's approach to problem solving, which in turn influenced the progressive movement. For Dewey the method for testing educational theory was that of the scientist. Science was also felt in the form of the nature study movement, which held that the content of study should be drawn from everyday observations of nature as seen in the change of seasons and wildlife, rather than from books. But science directly influenced the arts as well. Some of the ways in which this influence was felt are described below. [p. 148]

Changes in Technology. The invention of photography in the 1840s was one of the most discernible ways whereby science influenced art. By 1860 photography had become the principal method for documenting images. In one sense this liberated artists from the need to serve as portrait painters. More important, however, was its profound effect on how artists saw their world. The invention of aniline dyes and other chemical pigments widened the palette available to painters, while new materials and building techniques brought about changes in architecture. New Theories accounting for the effects of light and color, coupled with the brighter palette made possible by chemistry, influenced the canvasses of impressionist painters. [Grosser, 1956]

Discovery of the Unconscious. The discovery of the inner world of the mind, of subconscious drives and hidden fears, influenced artists to abandon the realism of everyday appearances and focus on the deeper reality of inner psychological states. Such styles as expressionism and, later, surrealism appeared as a consequence [Fleming, 1968] [Grosser stressed the impact of changing technology, while Fleming adds the impact of such social sciences as anthropology and psychology as agents changing the understanding of the artistic process and its role in human affairs.]

Primitivism and Cultural Relativism. With the longstanding traditions of academic art called into question, artists began to find new sources of inspiration in the art of so -called primitive peoples [Goldwater, 1938/1986]. African art influenced Picasso, while the primitive imagery of child art can be seen in Klee. Concurrent with these developments in art, anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict began to suggest that the life, customs, and values of other cultural groups merely provide different views of reality, underscoring the growing belief that Western culture has no monopoly on truth.

Abstraction and Scientific Reductionism. The great retrospective show of CÚzanne in 1907 brought home to a generation of young painters the idea that all visual forms could be reduced to the cone, the cube, and the cylinder. CÚzanne sought to realize some underlying truth through his analyses of pictorial form. By 1911 artists such as Braque and Picasso had assimilated CÚzanne's lesson and went on to invent a new style of painting that reduced the image to constituent units that then could be rearranged at will to produce new realities. Cubism was thus born. Other artists, such as Kandinsky and Malevich, abandoned the image altogether and sought to discover principles of art in the analysis of pure form. Vitz and Glimcher likened this approach in art to scientific reductionism. [It is not that scientific reductionism is necessarily good or bad, but simply that this is part of the consciousness of the twentieth century and may explain why abstract art rather than some other style developed in this century.]

"As an intellectual approach this attitude assumes that understanding a given phenomenon requires first, the discovery of a new, more fundamental level of [pp. 148-149] reality that lies beneath or behind the familiar level of understanding, and second, that this new basic level can be analyzed or broken down into subsystems, elements, relationships, processes and so on, which account for and explain the observation at the familiar level." [1984, p. 12]

Though artists were not seeking explanations of phenomena, there was a widespread conviction that all art rested upon a foundation of elements and principles, providing what was believed to be a definitive basis for the study and analysis of previous styles and the evolution of new styles. Design was seen as the foundation of art instruction. This was exemplified by the art pedagogy of Arthur Wesley Dow, Denman Ross, and later by the master of the German Bauhaus. Courses in design throughout the century have borne such titles as "Design Fundamentals" or "Foundational Studies." [pp. 148-150]

From the 1890s to the First World War art education went through several transitions. The first was from a subject limited to the teaching of drawing to one encompassing a wider designation of art, including appreciation, design, and crafts.

Industrial education itself was transformed into vocational education, and by World War I it had divorced itself from education in art, although the original industrial purpose for art education survived in the form of handicrafts and the ideals of the arts-and-crafts movement.

As a social movement, the arts-and-crafts movement failed to achieve its mission of reforming productive processes. However, it achieved notable success in changing public taste. Like picture study and schoolroom decoration, its role in schooling was also limited to the cultivation of taste and appreciation of the beautiful.

With the industrial mission of art education lost, art teachers turned to the teaching and appreciation of art and natural beauty as their reason for being. This lack of utilitarian mission tended to reduce the importance of the subject, as is seen in its relegation to elective status in secondary education.

Yet in spite of a decline in the overall importance of the arts in education, more students actually had access to such studies, since students were attending high school, where they could elect to study art, in greater numbers. At the turn of the century nearly 40 percent of the towns and cities in Massachusetts required a year of formal study in art at the high school level. The idea that art should be required study is still an unfulfilled goal in our own time.

The movement known as progressive education began in the work of Parker and Dewey and continued to grow. Their experimental work in Chicago was informed by scientific studies of children's natural interests as a basis for the curriculum. They enlivened the curriculum with nature study and manual occupations, and both recognized that the arts had important consequences for stimulating the child's powers of observation and interests.

In spite of the obstacles that faced art education at the turn of the century, important strides were made. This is seen in the rise of professional associations for art and manual training teachers, as well as in the rising number of such professional publications as the School Arts Book.

In the next chapter we will see the scientific rationalism that began in the 1890s manifest itself as the scientific movement of the years between World War I and World War II. At the same time, a countervailing movement arose to change the fortunes of art education. Like the scientist at the end of the nineteenth century, the avant-garde artist was to become a new form of cultural hero, and under the banner of creative self-expression, the fortunes of art education rose again.


[Notes from: Efland, Arthur. "Art Education in the Twentieth Century: A History of Ideas." In Framing the Past: Essays on Art Education,eds. Soucy, Donald, and Mary Ann Stankiewicz, Reston, Virginia: National Art Education Association, 1990.]



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